Generations beyond their target audience, ’90s coming-of-age comedies remain popular with good reason. Our pair of films, shown through the Student Union Movie Organization in the Weitz last week, are rooted in classical literature: Clueless draws from Austen’s Emma, and 10 Things from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Though I haven’t read either of these, my unfamiliarity serves to illustrate the individual merits of these films. I’d say there’s a clear winner between the two, but would I say either film is overrated? “As if!”
The secret behind the cult status of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless lies in its humanity more than its infinite quotability. Beverly Hills teenage socialite Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) uses her acumen of high school social dynamics to boost herself by helping others. She and her friend Dionne (Stacey Dash) get two of their single teachers together to raise Cher’s grades; she helps new student Tai (Brittany Murphy) ascend the pecking order.
The film is known for its slang-heavy dialogue but its legitimate interest in teenagers as human beings keeps it from feeling obnoxious. The adults of Clueless are neither scornful of their unfamiliarity with teen culture nor stubbornly restrictive, with the parents and teachers handling the distance between generations with humor and encouragement. Rather than a manifestation of spite for older generations, Clueless treats the slang and style of the day with organic respect.
The increasing warmth of Cher’s actions and abounding hints that our conventional stoners, cheerleaders and jocks are more attuned to their surroundings than expected prevent the audience from assuming these teenagers are shallow. The screenwritingis also brilliant, delivering an earnest brand of comedy which keeps the laughs going and constantly engages us to notice these details.
Cher believes herself wise for knowing the social mechanics of her school, and, just as she surprises us with her sage advice and corrections to those assumed to be more intelligent than her, there’s still a lot she needs to learn about the world… she’s clueless, as all teens really are. While looking in the windows of a Tiffany’s, she contemplates the validity of her strategies, calling to mind Holly Golightly, another naïve socialite who had “breakfast” at the same location in 1961. The conflict between cluelessness and experience pales in comparison to what’s most important about Cher: her heart. Just as the movie opens with her deliberating over her outfit, we’re hit with her telling her father to stick to his diet. Look past the stereotypical “daddy-daughter” dynamic, and you see a girl legitimately concerned for those around her.
The film’s weaknesses are the romance and narration. Paul Rudd plays her step-brother and eventual love interest. I’m guessing the step-sibling element is lifted from Emma, but it feels increasingly incestuous the older the film gets. Their interactions are too sibling-coded, making their ending game of tongue rugby incredibly unpleasant, and the audience seemed to agree wholeheartedly. Cher’s narration is charming, but she at times gives too much away, a common sin of the device.
10 Things, by contrast, seems wholly content with poking fun at tropes rather than challenging them. It borrows the clique rundown from Clueless but takes it further: you’ve got teenage cowboys, white stoners wanting to be Bob Marley, etc. The writing of 10 Things is riskier and more abrasive, trading greater impact for the consistent humor of Clueless. The camera was more adventurous here, with more ambitious shots and blocking: you’ve got a great moment as an ant’s-eye view from the bottom of a stairwell, watching fliers for a party rain down as hands eagerly jut out to grab them. The numerous references to The Bard, beyond the plot itself, were particularly fun for me.
The film tells the story of Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who in seeking the affections of Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), must get Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) to go out with Kat (Julia Stiles), Bianca’s sister and the school’s choleric
“shrew.” The film’s central romance between Verona and Kat is stronger, supported by some sweet, if cheesy, moments of whimsy. Rather than working off of audience expectations of teenagers, 10 Things creates a pairing of outcasts. She’s quick-tempered and brutally witty; he’s calloused and unapproachable. In their interactions, they bring out each other’s softer cores that their peers are too near-sighted to uncover.
The film’s interest in these tertiary characters runs a little too skin-deep for my taste, however. Most felt like gestural sketches rather than seeming fully fleshed out, but they’re still amusing drawings to watch nonetheless. In proper Shakespearian comedy fashion, everyone is paired up well by the end. 10 Things has a strong callback game in its writing: even if you aren’t laughing as consistently, the film lets the characters relish the set-up, leading to an excellent payoff most of the time.
Beyond simply both addressing perceptions of teens, the thematic connection between Clueless and 10 Things, I found, lay in an important, shared ghost character. Cher is the type of person Kat would make fun of, but they’re alike in their lack of mother figures. Cher’s mother died from a failed liposuction; Kat’s mother abandoned her family. Neither take up physical presence, but each imposes unique thematic pressures.
In Clueless, Cher comes to occupy a motherly niche: she not only pesters her father about keeping up his health but also takes care of people around her. She is for others what she lacks herself, and this seems to fuel the generosity and kindness behind her character.
In 10 Things, her mother’s pearl necklace becomes a symbolic source of conflict. Bianca and Kat’s father is incredibly strict, a suffocating force who makes it no wonder why his wife left. The necklace represents defiance and the search for autonomy for the sisters, both within their family and in themselves. Pay attention to who’s wearing it when, as it’s an excellent representation of both character and progress.
Both films are well thought out, and although I’d say Clueless is stronger, there’s far more than ten things to love about this double feature.
10 Things: 3.5/5